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Marching, Voting, and Repairing

09/14/2021 01:18:46 PM


Good morning and tzom kal. I hope your fasts are moving along as painlessly as possible. Our fasts this day are an opportunity to more deeply connect with our compassion, our humility, our sorrow over the evils of the world, and our gratitude of the beauty of the world and the bounty we enjoy most days.

          We are so fortunate most days to fill our bellies, to go to jobs that sustain us, to go to schools that educate us and our children, to rely on our municipalities to keep us safe and promote our interests and values. This year that feels especially true as this is the first Yom Kippur we’ve gathered without worry of our Prince William County students having to choose between school and services. That Prince William County was able to pass the new calendar updates when Fairfax County was not, despite the disparity of Jewish demographics going the other direction, is a blessing of democracy.

          This Selichot also happened to fall on the anniversary of the March on Washington, during which some 250,000 people gathered to demand better protections over voting rights, bringing the awesome importance of democracy into our Days of Awe. Although universal voting equality was technically made legal in our constitution in 1920 with the 19th amendment enfranchising women voters, by that point the 15th amendment allowing Black men to vote during the Reconstruction Era had been affectively overturned. With voter intimidation, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white-only primaries, and so on, very few Black people were able or felt safe even trying to vote by the 20th century. Although the 19th amendment did not specify the right for white women only, in practice women of color were not able to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

          Like the 15th amendment, the Voting Rights Act worked for a while. By the 1980’s disparities in voter registration across races and sexes had all but vanished. But over the last 20 years, more court cases have arisen that enabled weakening of the voter protections put in place in 1965. Sections of the act that protected against discrimination were struck down on the grounds that the discrimination wasn’t provable or explicit, and so deemed not real. But the proof is in the results the changes to the law have affected: most voter suppression tactics disproportionately affect voters of color, disabled voters, and other historically disenfranchised groups. Gerrymandering and polling relocations, strict ID laws that exclude certain types of official IDs, restrictions to mail-in or early voting, purposely slowing the process of registration so that new voters aren’t eligible by the election date, purging voting rolls, and lack of accessibility to polling locations for disabled voters or students or indigenous people are all technically legal but blatantly harmful means for voter suppression. Then there are the still more questionable voter intimidation tactics at polls and deceptive flyering and robocalls, as well as the controversial ex-felon disenfranchisement laws and the proof of citizenship laws that are often only utilized based on racial profiling.

          In our Torah portion this morning, Moses gathers all the people of Israel before him to tell them all that the Torah and the covenant he has brokered with God on their behalf is for everyone equally. He doesn’t give the water carriers and the woodchoppers a different and less convenient gathering place from the priests and the chieftains. He doesn’t give the mixed multitudes a less equipped and accessible Torah. He doesn’t pass out flyers claiming that Joshua is going to steal their jobs. He gathers every single person to him, and he gives them all the same message, the same Torah, the same covenant. He tells them clearly that not one of them needs someone else to bring them the law, but that each of them are equally responsible for maintaining it and each of them are equally deserving of the blessings and gift of life that it will bring them. While there is some hierarchy in social structure in the Israelite camp, there is no disenfranchisement of the Israelites. There are appointed leaders, but they are all held still accountable to the health of the nation, and there are many reminders throughout the Torah toward the commandment of equality.

          Our Haftarah exhorts us in no uncertain terms to end all oppression, to break the chains of disenfranchisement. To honor the Days of Awe while turning a blind eye to efforts to return to legal forms of discrimination and segregation is a farce, an abomination. If we remove barriers to a just and equitable society, Isaiah says, God will come to us not just on holy days but all days, and our children shall build up foundations for a brighter future for all. Repairers of the Breach, he calls those who focus their minds toward justice and uplifting the downtrodden, and it is this name that the Rev. Dr. William Barber II calls his organization that has spearheaded the revival of the Rev. Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign. It is the duty of all people of faith who think to live by the words of Torah and the Prophets to do the serious work of societal teshuvah it takes to bring about not only legal equality but lived equitability, actionable change that betters the lives of all people. To do anything less is not real teshuvah, but merely lip service apologies for interpersonal slights, and for that the Day of Atonement alone will not atone.

          Around Selichot, the National Council of Jewish women put out this vidui written by Rabbi Seth Limmer:

  • Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for the sin we have committed before You by letting the powerful Voting Rights Act of 1965 fall back, for letting voting rights be stripped, for letting disenfranchisement happen
  • Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for the sin we have committed before You by letting the working class become lower class, for making work not equal to dignity
  • Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for the sin we have committed before You by forgetting that all schools matter and deserve equal funding
  • Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for the sin we have committed before You that even when we can create a wonderful environment for our people to go to, too many of them can’t find safe passage there, can’t find food, or a home, or a place to do their homework
  • Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for the sin we have committed before You by letting our society too often be divided between Black and white, and for letting our law enforcement and justice system do the same.

May 5782 be a year of righteous action and equal justice. May it be a year of uplifting the downtrodden and embracing neighbors of all races, sexualities, genders, abilities, and class. And may it be a year of victories in the name of democracy and a year of goodness by the people for the people. Amen and g’mar chatimah tova.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782